Long before encountering a palm tree, years before skimming across watery ribbons of lapis and azure entwined through the heart of Caribbean islands, lifetimes before walking entangled and thorned into tumbles of bougainvillea and the shadows of tropical dreams, I loved Winslow Homer and his art.
A prolific and engaging American watercolorist, Homer (1836-1910) moved from New York to Prout’s Neck, Maine in the summer of 1883. Despite his love of the New England coast, he often vacationed in Florida and the Caribbean. His mastery of his medium and his unique vision of the islands produced exquisite renderings of sun-drenched homes, palm-fringed beaches and great, vivid falls of blossoms redolent of nutmeg and honey.
During a first visit to the Caribbean, I was intrigued to discover how completely its marvelous realities entangled themselves in my mind with Winslow’s work. It seemed impossible to separate the threads. I had expected to think, “Winslow Homer’s painting looks like this.” But as I gazed about, wriggling my toes into sugar-soft sand and tasting the salt-heavy air, I came to a rather different conclusion. The Caribbean looked liked Winslow Homer. It was as though the artist himself had absorbed, intensified, and re-presented the sea, sand and sky in such a way that his paintings were distillations of the islands – purer than reality itself.
That same distillation of reality was a hallmark of another iconic American painter, Georgia O’Keeffe. Saturating her bold, idiosyncratic forms with color ethereal as a swallowtail’s wing yet intense as a mesa sunrise, she created images which seem illuminated from within, leaving the viewer convinced reality is no more than a poor reflection of her art.
In Georgia O’Keeffe: Arts and Letters, Jack Cowart notes O’Keeffe admitted to carrying shapes around in her mind for a very long time until she could find their proper colors. As O’Keeffe herself acknowledged, “I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me, shapes and ideas so near to me, so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down. I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught.”
As a result of that stripping-away process, she often seems to have been the first person truly to see Taos or Abiquiu, the first to delineate the heart of the Chama River, the first in the world truly to capture the essence of morning glory, jimson or rose.
Like Winslow Homer, her images can appear more real than reality itself. It’s as though the world arrived on her doorstep saying, “Come here. Let me show you my heart, so you can convey it to the world.” Looking at her 1938 painting of two jimson weed blossoms, it’s impossible not to say, “Georgia O’Keeffe did that.” On the other hand, her way of seeing the world has so deeply influenced our own that when we take time to look at an extraordinarily vibrant flower blooming in a friend’s garden we say, “Georgia O’Keeffe could have done that”.
And we would be exactly right. Neither Winslow Homer nor Georgia O’Keeffe invented the world they represent. Long before their genius manifested itself in brushstrokes, it lived as a willingness to see, an ability to enter into a deeply intimate relationship with the world and a capacity to allow that relationship to re-shape their vision as they committed it to canvas.
In a wonderful musing entitled Art and Perception , Richard Rothstein recalls his early days of pondering the nature of perception and artistic production:
“As a young man off on his first world adventures I was stunned by the revelation that many of the great artists I admired did not invent their mysterious landscapes, colors and visual signatures of China, Japan, Tuscany and Provence. Rather they were brilliantly capturing the unique moods, colors, light and shapes that nature had already chosen to create. I remember gazing over the hills of Tuscany for the first time and thinking, “Oh! So that’s where Leonardo got that.” And I remember the day I realized that Van Gogh was “photographing” (through his unusual lens) the unique palette and landscapes of Provence.”
An artist himself, Rothstein reflects on the confrontation with reality in terms of gratitude. “I can only speak for myself,” he says, “but I often walk away from something I’ve just photographed in Manhattan with a sense of gratitude…toward my subject.” He goes on to ask, “How much of an artist’s talent is in his ability to create [and how much in his ability to] record – not just the obvious visuals but also the mood and the energy of the subject? “
Rothstein seems to be suggesting a two-sided artistic coin, one which displays on one side the artist, and on the other the subject itself. Say what we will about imagination, technique, or the mastery of our creative tools. In the end it is reality dragging the artist – painter, writer, photographer, poet – over to the face of the cliff, the face of the building, the face of the nameless and forgotten ones among us, saying, “This is my gift to you. I am giving you the vision. Now, the responsibility is yours.”
It may be that the first way to recognize an artist is neither by canvas nor manuscript, but by a deeply personal, intensely visceral response to the gift of vision. Having seen the world in all of its depth, breadth and particular beauty, it may be the artists among us who are most capable of rejoicing in that vision and gratefully sharing it with others.
Winslow Homer knew the experience well. It was Homer who said, “The sun will not rise or set without my notice, and thanks.” Vincent Van Gogh knew it, too, saying, “I have walked this earth for thirty years, and out of gratitude, want to leave some souvenir.” Even the solemn philosophers agree. Often misunderstood as a dark and foreboding presence on the cultural horizon, Nietzsche himself once declared, “The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.”
To the extent that pursuit of visions and expressions of gratitude are marks of the artistic soul, we may live more closely aligned to the artists than we think. Not so many months ago I witnessed a seven-year-old running into her house, bubbling and breathless. “Look, Mommy!” she exclaimed, waving about a dry and slightly crumbling bouquet of yellow and brown leaves. “Look what the tree gave me! I’m so happy! I’m going to make something no one’s ever seen!”
Winslow, Vincent, Georgia and Richard would understand perfectly, and they would tell us to follow the lead of that child. Look at what the world has given you. Do something with it. Be grateful.